Normal levels of British public disinterest in Northern Irish politics is well shown by the crashing of the Democratic Unionist Party's website today as people in England, Scotland and Wales woke up to the news they are likely to be governed by a coalition of Theresa May's deflated Tories and the DUP.
Those already aware of the party will likely owe this to bad memories of 'the Troubles' (ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century) and associated recollections of the Rev. Ian Paisley, founder of the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The Church and the party provided Paisley with platforms to attack all those deemed a threat to Northern Ireland's union with the United Kingdom. For decades this included not only the Irish Republican Army and its political wing Sinn Féin, but also those 'sell outs', fellow Protestant Unionists and British politicians, including Margaret Thatcher, who sought to 'betray Ulster' by considering power-sharing initiatives with moderate nationalists/Catholics and who dared to suggest the Republic of Ireland should have a say in affairs across the border. Indeed, one of the great ironies of modern Irish/British history is that following thirty years of the Troubles, and the bedding-in of a 'peace process' Paisley had initially railed against, the man renowned for saying 'Never' to compromise became the First Minister of Northern Ireland in a devolved power-sharing government alongside Sinn Féin's Martin McGuiness as Deputy First Minister.
Paisley stepped down in 2008 but the DUP has remained the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland under the leadership first of Peter Robinson, and subsequently of Arlene Foster. Under the tenure of Paisley's successors, the links with the Free Presbyterian church have weakened but the party remains deeply socially conservative, and to a far greater degree than the British Conservative Party. Theresa May will probably be in a coalition government with a party hostile to the LGBT community and which opposes same-sex-marriage. The DUP also opposes women's right to abortion, which remains illegal in Northern Ireland. The party also denies climate change. It is almost exclusively supported by Protestants in Northern Ireland and can be accurately described as sectarian.
Robinson's leadership suffered from the whiff of corruption, and Foster's reputation for political astuteness has recently been undermined by a poorly managed renewable heating scandal, which ultimately led Sinn Féin to collapse the Executive. In the subsequent Northern Irish election, held in March, the DUP lost ten Assembly seats and came close to being overtaken by Sinn Féin as the largest party. Foster's reputation was further diminished by her sexist description of Sinn Féin leader Michelle O'Neill as a 'blonde' and, like Theresa May, she 'ducked' televised debates during the recent campaign. All that is changed today, however, with the election results seemingly heralding a remarkable change in the recent political fortunes of the DUP.
The DUP's campaign was fought on the need for a strong retort to Sinn Fein's electoral advance in March, and in particular to stop in its tracks any suggestion of a 'border poll' on the future of Northern Ireland in its tracks. This focus on the 'national question' suited Sinn Féin also, and as a consequence, today saw the more moderate parties in Northern Ireland wiped off the Westminster electoral map. The DUP's ten seats will potentially allow Theresa May to stay in power, especially as Sinn Féin, in the Irish republican tradition, will abstain from taking its seven seats at Westminster.
By holding the balance of power at Westminster, the DUP can block a border poll on Northern Ireland's future as this cannot happen without British government approval. In these times of austerity, the DUP will also be able to demand, and probably get, economic advances for Northern Ireland. On public spending the party's manifesto was closer to Labour's than May's. However, the DUP's leverage will be limited. The alternative to Theresa May is Jeremy Corbyn, a political enemy of the DUP, due to his past close relationship with Sinn Féin.
From May's perspective she will be in power with a party in many ways more right-wing and xenophobic than much of the British electorate will be able to stomach, and the Tories will have to be concerned with contagion. On Brexit at least, the parties ostensibly agree. Ironically, however, the DUP is less keen to accept a 'hard border' with the Irish Republic than the Conservatives. A border which is too 'hard' would severely impact on Northern Ireland's economy and call into question the need for a border at all.Suggest a correction